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Rapid growth heightens food needs in China

Like most Americans, I’ve read and seen numerous reports about the frantic pace of China’s economic growth, its ambitious infrastructure building program and its drive to urbanize. But witnessing it firsthand with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) China market study tour still really blew me away.

After 10 days on the ground in China, participants in the study tour came away even more convinced that the country’s economic growth will lead to significantly higher food imports, and I heartily agreed. That demand is almost certain to lead to continued strong demand for soybeans, corn, pork and beef and will continue to be a major influence on world prices.

The growth of China’s economy really came into clear focus for me and others on the trip when we left Beijing and traveled to Shijiazhuang, Des Moines’ sister city and the capital of Hebei province. It’s a place that few Americans could find on a map, much less pronounce. But it boasts a population of 10 million (three times the size of the entire state of Iowa) and a growth rate of nearly 7 percent per year.

While Shijiazhuang’s city center is full of tall buildings and sparkling new shopping centers, it’s the edges of town that are shocking. Scores of tall 30- to 40-story apartment towers, most of which are still under construction, loom over the countryside in every direction ready to absorb the rural people moving from farms into the city. Each complex appears ready to house 3,000 to 4,000 people when they are complete.

As one member of the IFBF study tour joked after the tour bus passed yet another unfinished apartment complex, "I should have invested in concrete, rebar and cranes."

Shijiazhuang is not unique. There are thousands of cities like it across China that are growing fast, adding population and absorbing farmland.

Growth like China’s would tax even the best agricultural system, and China is a long way from that.

While the Iowans did see some progressive farms and ag processing plants, farms typically cover only about one acre of land, and agriculture technology is old or nonexistent. Chinese ag officials outlined ambitious plans to consolidate land holdings and modernize farms. But it was clear to the Iowans that Chinese agricultural reform will be a challenge and, even if it is successful, will take decades.

And those decades present a tremendous opportunity for farmers in Iowa.